Many women think their vagina should be odorless, but as with everywhere else on our body, it actually has a scent that can be fairly complex. If that scent becomes unpleasant, though, it could indicate a problem. Here are the five most common causes of unpleasant vaginal odor, and (where relevant) how they're treated.
The most common explanation for an unpleasant vaginal odor is an infection called bacterial vaginosis. No one knows what causes it; the infectious agent or agents have yet to be identified. Signs that you might have it include a fishy odor, as well as a thin white or gray discharge and a burning sensation while urinating or having intercourse. The infection is likely transmitted sexually and is treated with specific antibiotics.
Another possible cause is trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted infection caused by a protozoan parasite. The infection often doesn’t cause symptoms, but if it does they might include yellow or green, frothy discharge that may smell fishy, as well as burning with urination and intercourse. It is effectively treated with a single dose of antibiotics.
A yeast infection can cause a yeast-like smell and a thick, white discharge, as well as itching, soreness, and burning during urination and intercourse. It occurs when yeast, which are normally present in the vagina, overgrow. That often occurs after taking antibiotics that kill bacteria, which allows the yeast to grow without competition from the “good” bacteria that normally keep them in check. That’s one more reason to take antibiotics only if needed. Yeast infections are treated with antifungal medication. They are not sexually transmitted.
2. Hormonal changes
Vaginal secretions during menstruation and between ovulation and your next period may have a more unpleasant odor than those during other parts of the cycle, according to some older research. Another potential hormonal cause is menopause, during which reduced estrogen levels cause vaginal tissue to thin and become less acidic. Many women undergoing menopause notice a smelly, watery discharge. If the smell causes you distress, your doctor may prescribe topical estrogen, which usually eliminates the odor in a few weeks. Since estrogen vaginal cream is absorbed to a small extent into the bloodstream, it should only be used after discussing the pros and cons with your physician.
As you’ve probably noticed, a sweaty groin is a smelly one. That’s because your external genitals have a special kind of gland called apocrine sweat glands (also found in the armpits, nipples, ear canals, eyelids, and wings of your nostrils). These glands secrete an oily fluid that’s metabolized by bacteria on your skin, letting off a noticeable smell. Wearing tight clothing or being overweight can exacerbate the problem by trapping sweat and bacteria on the skin or, in the case of excess weight, in skin folds.
4. Something you ate
What you eat may affect vaginal odor, just as it affects other parts of your body, such as your armpits, scalp, mouth, and feet. Research shows that foods with strong scents like chilies, pepper, garlic, onion, blue cheese, cabbage, fish, and broccoli tend to have the most impact. If you suspect a food might be the culprit, you could try eliminating it and see if the odor improves.
5. A forgotten tampon
Over time, the buildup of menstrual blood and bacteria can lead to irritation, itching, and a strong, unpleasant-smelling discharge. If you think you’ve forgotten to remove a tampon, see your gynecologist. He or she can safely remove it and treat any possible infection.
Self-help for vaginal odor
If vaginal odor is very strong or accompanied by unusual discharge, pain, burning, or itching, contact your health care provider. Otherwise, these general tips can help prevent unwanted odors:
- Wear loose clothing and cotton underwear to increase airflow to your groin and prevent moisture buildup.
- Change your clothes after exercising.
- Lose weight if necessary.
- Don’t douche. It removes healthy bacteria in the vagina, which help prevent infection. And avoid “feminine sprays,” which can lead to irritation or possibly an allergic reaction. The vagina naturally cleans itself, so interfering with the process is more likely to cause problems than avert them.